With Wonkathon season kicking into high gear, asking participants what’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind, it occurred to me that this year’s question, as fundamental and challenging as it may be, is a withering indictment of our education system. Unlike the United States, countries like Canada and Singapore don’t need to ask it. To wit, in describing some of the highest performing systems in the world, veteran education analyst Marc Tucker once pointed out, “Students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen.”
As entries continue to roll in, it’s worth considering Tucker’s words and remembering the parable of the river:
A group of people are standing at a river bank and suddenly hear a baby crying. Shocked, they see an infant struggling in the water. One person immediately dives in to rescue the child. But right away another baby comes floating down the river, and then another! People continue to jump in to save the babies and then see that one person has started to walk away from the group still on shore. Accusingly they shout, “Where are you going? We need everyone available to help save these drowning babies!” The response: “I'm going upstream to stop whoever's throwing babies into the river.”
Like the group gathered along the shore, this year’s contestants will invariably be part of what my friend Ian Rowe has called our “overwhelmed rescue squads,” valiantly proposing out-of-the-box, innovative, but tragically insufficient solutions to effectively remediate the millions of children who fall behind each year. Lest the reader think that a dated parable offers little of use for today’s education improvement context, consider this excerpt from my colleague Robert Pondiscio’s new book:
When no-excuses charter schools began opening in significant numbers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most focused on middle schools, the point at which achievement gaps in reading and math widened and calcified. It became quickly evident, however, just how difficult it is for children who have already fallen years behind, particularly in reading, to catch up—even at the best-run schools [emphasis added]. Fewer than one-third of students who have fallen behind academically by fourth or eighth grade catch up and graduate “college ready,” according to a 2012 ACT study. As a result of these hard-learned lessons, most major charter management organizations now prefer to start students in elementary school.
The best charter management organizations may have indeed internalized these “hard-learned lessons,” but the education sector as a whole certainly hasn’t. Whether it’s assigning the least-effective teachers to non-tested grades (particularly the critical earliest years of school) or the wanton use of unproven teaching strategies, schools—including the very best ones—continue to leave too many of our babies flailing in the water. Like a zombie that refuses to die, the question of what to do with them is caught in a feedback loop among advocates calling for a greater focus on grade-level material and those who believe in the need for more differentiation and personalization. Given the low-success rate of remediation efforts generally, I’m skeptical as to whether a good answer lies anywhere between these two poles.
Instead, I echo Rowe’s sentiment that the only real solution (i.e., one that obviates the need to ask this year’s Wonkathon question in the first place) must be found upstream. This means putting shoulder to the wheel in one of the few areas where there’s real science: reading instruction. I’m thinking of three things in particular:
1. Assign the most effective teachers to the early grades. I don’t know how to shift the hearts, minds, and lesson plans of millions of individual teachers, but I do know that education has been and will continue to be a human endeavor. It’s unclear to me whether improving teacher training generally is worth the return on investment, but something that should be easier to do is to put our best teachers in kindergarten and first grade, and discontinue the blinkered practice of assigning them to the grades that are tested. Granted, there’s an argument to be made that kindergarten is still too late, that we need to start at pre-K, or zero-to-three. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett described this as “the myth of the fourteen-egg omelet.” Regardless, elementary educators generally have little control over what happens before age five, so at the very least we should be going full speed ahead in grades K–2.
2. Adopt a high-quality language arts curriculum. Two years ago, my friend Kathleen Porter-Magee made this compelling argument in these pages:
In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. And as Robert Pondiscio has persuasively argued, it simply makes “an already hard job nearly impossible [for teachers] to do well.” Yet study after study has demonstrated that requiring teachers to use a proven textbook or curriculum to guide their teaching is one of the surest ways to improve outcomes for students.
Getting down to brass tacks, this means students should receive daily, explicit, systematic phonics instruction in the early grades. Incorporating rich content into the curriculum is profoundly important. Students must also develop fluency with mathematical procedures in the early years. Schools and districts should look for reading and math programs grounded in a robust research-base and strongly aligned to standards.
3. Make teacher tenure an achievement. My colleague Mike Petrilli wrote a thought-provoking piece about the progress schools might make if they would only go after the low-hanging fruit such as halting the practice of tenure as an automatic proposition. Districts could and should make the process of achieving tenure more rigorous instead of a rubber stamp. Sure, it’s not directly related to reading instruction, but tenure reform is essential to the task of making sure every kindergarten and first grade classroom is staffed by an effective teacher.
If schools were simply able to do these three things, not only would we stem the rate at which our babies are being thrown into the river, there’s an added benefit of potentially side-stepping some of the sticky questions that enervate our assessment and accountability systems.
To be clear, the pedagogical debate we’re having today is a worthwhile one. As futile as the effort may seem to catch up those who are far behind, we can ill afford to throw our hands up. Our collective failure at preempting failure compels us to redouble our efforts, so we need more ideas and more strategies to remediate and rescue more students. But it won’t be enough. To help students who are several grade levels behind, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.